A Brief History of Tibet

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Tibet

The earliest inhabitants of Tibet were pastoral people. They herded goats, cattle, and sheep. By 100 BC people in Tibet learned to irrigate the land and grew rice and barley as well as raised herds of livestock. In the 6th century AD, Tibet was divided into different kingdoms but early in the 7th century AD, Tibet became a single, unified state.

Also in the early 7th century, a form of writing was created in Tibet based on Indian writing. Tibet became a highly civilized nation between India and China. It was also powerful. In 763 AD the Tibetans captured the Chinese capital Changan.

The earliest religion of Tibet was called Bon. It was a shamanistic religion. Its followers believed there were good and evil spirits everywhere in nature. The shamans could communicate with the spirits and act as intermediaries.

However, in the 8th century, Buddhism was introduced into Tibet from India. The first Buddhist monastery was built at Samye in c.779 AD. Bon did not die but it adopted many Buddhist teachings. Tibetan Buddhism also adopted Bon beliefs.

However, a ruler named Lang Darma 838-842 persecuted Buddhists, and after his death, Buddhism declined. Moreover, in the 9th century, Tibet split up into warring states.

Buddhism revived in Tibet in the late 10th century. Men like Rinchen Zangpo 958-1055 who founded monasteries and temples, and the Indian teacher Atisha 982-1055 led the revival. Furthermore, in 1073 the great Sakya monastery was founded.

In the early 13th century the Mongols conquered a vast empire across Asia. In 1207 Tibet submitted to the Mongols. As a result, although Tibet became a vassal state it was never fully absorbed into the Mongol Empire.

Then in 1247 Goden Khan, the Mongol leader, made Sakya Lama the temporal ruler of Tibet. He became the first priest-ruler of Tibet.

Later Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor of China, made the Sakya lama his spiritual adviser. It was a symbiotic relationship. The lama advised the emperor and in turn, received his patronage and protection.

However, in 1350 the Tibetans rebelled against the Sakya lama and overthrew him. Tibet then became a secular state.

In the 15th century, several new monasteries were founded in Tibet. In 1409 at Gandan. In 1416 at Drepung, at Sera in 1419, and at Trashilingpo in 1447.

In Tibet, Buddhists were divided into several sects. One of these was called the Gelug pa or yellow sect. In 1578 the leader of the sect, Sonan Gyats met the chief of a Mongol tribe called the Tumet. The Mongols were converted to Buddhism and the two men allied. Sonan Gyats was given the title Dalai Lama. However, he was called the third Dalai Lama. The two previous leaders of the sect were posthumously named the first and second Dalai Lamas.

Sonan Gyats, the third Dalai Lama, became the spiritual adviser of the Mongols while the Mongol chiefs became his patrons and protectors.

The early 17th century was a period of civil war in Tibet. Then in 1640, the Mongols entered Tibet to support the Fifth Dalai Lama. In 1642 they made him the temporal ruler and spiritual leader of Tibet. From then on the Dalai Lama was a priest-king.

When the Dalai Lama dies it is believed that he is reincarnated as a child. When the child is discovered he becomes the new Dalai Lama. Under the Fifth Dalai Lama Tibet was prosperous and powerful. However, when the Dalai Lamas died his second in command, the Desi, kept the death secret. The Desi ruled in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s name. He also concealed the discovery of a child believed to be the 6th Dalai Lama. The 6th Dalai Lama was finally installed in 1697.

However, his less-than-pious ways angered the leader of the Tumet Mongols. In 1705 the Mongols attacked Tibet and killed the Desi. They also deposed the 6th Dalai Lama, who they claimed was an impostor. The leader of the Tumet, Lhasang Kan installed a man of his choice as Dalai Lama. However, the Tibetan people refused to accept him.

Modern Tibet

In 1707 another Mongol people, the Dzungars invaded Tibet and killed Lhasang Kang. The Chinese were alarmed by the Dzungar success. In 1720 they sent a representative called an Amban to Tibet. They also stationed Chinese troops there. In time the Chinese began to see themselves as overlord of Tibet.

In the 18th century, Tibet isolated itself from the rest of the world. However, in the early 20th century, Tibet suffered a British invasion. At that time the British ruled India. While the British did not seek to rule Tibet they feared that it would fall under Russian influence.

The Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and the Chinese representative or Ambman declared that the Dalai Lama was deposed. The Tibetan people ignored him. The British then forced Tibet to sign a treaty allowing some trade with the British Empire and excluding ‘foreign influence’ (Russia) from Tibetan affairs.

The Chinese were alarmed by the British invasion of Tibet. They feared that if Tibet fell into British hands then China would fall under British influence. In 1909 the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled to India.

However, in 1911 a revolution broke out in China and the emperor was overthrown. Chinese troops in Tibet were forced to withdraw. In 1912 the Dalai Lama returned. However, in 1913 Chinese troops returned and occupied parts of Tibet.

In 1914 the British persuaded the Chinese to accept a treaty called the Simla Convention. The treaty divided Tibet into 2 regions, Inner Tibet and Outer Tibet. The Dalai Lama ruled Outer Tibet (although China claimed suzerainty or loose control). The Chinese were given partial control over Inner Tibet, although the treaty said Tibet would not be absorbed into China.

Neither side was satisfied with the treaty. In 1918 the Chinese invaded Tibet again but were forced to retreat.

In the 1920s and 1930s, some attempts were made to modernize Tibet but it remained a traditional and very isolated country. It was also a feudal society. Most of the land was owned by monasteries or by rich families. Most of the people were serfs. In 1951 Tibet was annexed by China. However, in 1959 resentment of Chinese rule led to a rebellion. The rebellion was quickly crushed and the Dalai Lama fled to India.

Under Chinese rule, serfdom was abolished and in 1965 Tibet was made an autonomous region.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

In 2006 a railway was built from Beijing to Lhasa. It is the highest railway in the world. However, in March 2008 rioting took place in Lhasa. Nevertheless, at present, the Tibetan economy is growing rapidly and the region is rich in minerals.

Today the population of Tibet is about 3.5 million.

Potala Palace

Last revised 2024